In the dream, my little brother and I were splashing in the breakers. We were kids. He was four or five and I was eight or nine. It wasn't a familiar beach—meaning I hadn't been there before in real life—but we felt comfortable there. Somewhere in the distance, not too far off, my Dad was reminding my brother not to go in the water the next day. "The waves will be really strong and they'll carry you too far out. You won't be able to swim back." I was in sitting in the low water, butt in the sand, floating a few inches off the ground with every wave that gently rolled in. My little brother was sitting above me, on the rocks a few feet out of the water.
Then, suddenly, a series of huge, powerful waves flooded us. My Dad was out of sight somewhere, safe, and Matt was still up on the rocks. The waves knocked me over and then carried me rapidly out to sea. I could hear Dad's voice in the distance growing fainter as I was carried farther out. "See?" he said to my brother as I drifted out. "That is what I'm talking about." I remember moving farther and farther away from my brother, a little boy sitting cross-legged on the rocks. I tried to tread water in the strong current and gazed at the shore. My last thought in the dream was one of concern. "Well, I think I can swim back there..."
I recently read an article called "The Perpetual Solitude of the Writer." The author, Adam Haslett, writes how we, as writers, must venture off on our own in order to then reconnect with others later on. He reflects on the inherent loneliness in this, but then offers some consolation by describing a hopeful outcome; perhaps loneliness offers us conditions under which can pay very close attention to ourselves; this, in turn, establishes a foundation for human intimacy:
"Consumer capitalism thrives by simultaneously creating human loneliness and commodifying a thousand cures for it. One form of resistance to it is the experience in art and life of a human intimacy achieved through sustained attention to what lies beyond and outside the sphere of the market."
He also issues warnings about forever dwelling—and working—in an imaginary world:
"If you spend your life cultivating the ability to invent stories that very capacity can block out what is right in front of you."
I have recently been working through my dreams. The dreams are anxious and incoherent at best, terrifying and immobilizing at worst, and often leave me with a feeling like I just witnessed a ten-car pileup happening in slow-motion. I can sense the arriving pain and see the horror, but remain helpless and frozen. Many dreams are full-blown nightmares, reconstructions of different types of intrusion and attack I've experience at some point. But I struggle to accept this. Instead, I opt for a more attractive option: reweave these dreams into some kind of fictional fabric that retains the essence of their truth, but changes their shape and consistency. You see, if I write the dreams as nonfiction, this material would be too heavy for me to lift and work with. So, through some kind of conscious, proactive alchemy, I recreate the nonfiction memories into inspired visions and imagined narratives. And then—ha! I defeat myself and, in doing, so, create a brilliant work of art.
Sigh. If only that were true.
As tempting as the above process is, I recognize that my work is to distill the dreams, to unhinge the memories from their vaults and carry them gently to a space where they can be seen in plain light. My salvation is not in fiction, in rewiring my memories into another story. The very fact that this is nonfiction is the saving grace that will help me emerge from solitude and, as Adam Haslett so eloquently writes, "bridge the divide of our intractable separateness by using our experience to create something that can be shared in common."
Variation on the Word Sleep
by Margaret Atwood
I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head
and walk with you through that lucent
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
with its watery sun & three moons
towards the cave where you must descend,
towards your worst fear
I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center. I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside me, and you enter
it as easily as breathing in
I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.